A chance to address racial inequity at its roots

Undoing exclusionary zoning codes key step forward

RACIAL INEQUITY in Massachusetts is largely attributable to discriminatory housing policies. High levels of segregation keep people of color from experiencing equal access to employment and educational opportunities, clean air and safe neighborhoods, and the chance to build equity in their home and pass it along to future generations. Reversing residential segregation is a tall task, but we must begin somewhere. The economic development bill legislators are taking up this week is an excellent starting point.

The bill, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker in March, empowers communities to undo exclusionary zoning codes by lowering the threshold required to approve zoning changes from two-thirds of the city council or town meeting to a simple 51 percent majority.

Beacon Hill has been debating this provision, known as Housing Choice, for years. In the past, the debate was mostly framed around whether we should make it easier to build more housing given the state’s affordability challenges. People on both sides could reasonably disagree about whether additional growth is the most desirable remedy for high housing costs.

However, Housing Choice is also about eliminating the use of zoning as a means to prevent people of color from moving into predominantly white suburban communities. By requiring municipalities to achieve two-thirds support before they can change local zoning to allow for apartments and townhomes, Massachusetts is one of only a handful of states that actually prevents a majority of residents from working to make their community more inclusive with housing at varying price points.

Because state law inhibits efforts to change the restrictive zoning laws of the past, Massachusetts maintains higher levels of residential segregation than other states. Among large metropolitan areas with significant black populations, Boston is the 15th most segregated, according to the Brookings Institution. A 2013 Harvard study found zoning accounts for at least half of the higher levels of segregation found in Boston compared to less segregated regions.

A survey of Massachusetts voters conducted by the MassINC Polling Group found white voters are split or undecided on Housing Choice. This contrasts sharply with nonwhite voters, who support Baker’s proposal by a 31 percentage point margin. These results demonstrate how intensely people of color feel the impact that supermajority requirements have had in terms of limiting equitable housing opportunities for both themselves and their children.

Tackling the longstanding zoning problem would be a major step forward, but it is not sufficient. If desirable suburbs create more housing that people of color can afford, many will leave urban neighborhoods behind, weakening already fragile real estate markets. Baker’s economic development bill wisely anticipates this problem, providing significant investment to stabilize urban neighborhoods and ensure that our cities can also work to achieve greater integration by offering attractive housing options to families with varying means.

Data on home mortgage lending demonstrate why this work is absolutely critical. In recent years, Dorchester, Roxbury, and other minority neighborhoods that suffered for decades from the ill-effects of bank redlining finally saw a wave of reinvestment. But far too many people of color who lived in these neighborhoods for years did not own property. Pushed out of Boston by rising rents, they sought stability and a chance to build wealth by purchasing in communities they could afford—Gateway Cities such as Brockton, Fall River, Haverhill, and Lawrence.

MassINC research shows that nearly 60 percent of the state’s Black and Latino homebuyers purchased in one of two dozen Gateway Cities over the past decade. However, in making these purchases, they were twice as likely as white buyers to settle in neighborhoods at risk of decline (as measured by poverty, vacancy, and residential churn). The economic crisis set off by the COVID-19 pandemic puts the home equity these families have built at real risk. Left unchecked, neighborhood decline will widen large racial wealth gaps.

Meet the Author

Juana Matias

Chief operating officer, MassINC
Invoking the words of Dr. Martin Luther King and the memory of George Floyd, Massachusetts legislators stood with people of color and have taken courageous votes on police reform. Now legislators can respond to racial inequity at its roots by passing a balanced economic development package with complementary Housing Choice and neighborhood stabilization provisions.

Juana Matias is the chief operating officer of MassINC, the corporate parent of CommonWealth magazine.